How to Open and Run a Successful Bar

We visited three new bars--a cocktail lounge, a low-key neighborhood spot and an urban distillery--run by people who know exactly what it takes to open a joint and keep it running.
Source: Julia Vandenoever

The Cocktail Temple

Williams & Graham, Denver

When you interview Sean Kenyon, the proprietor at Denver speakeasy Williams & Graham, you have what he's having. And what he's having--what he almost always has--is a Vieux Carré.

A tall drink: Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham
A tall drink: Sean Kenyon
Photo (C) Julia Vandenoever

Bar manager Jason Patz takes the drink order from Kenyon and sets to work. One large ice cube goes into a large glass. Then, a generous slug of Russell's Reserve 6-year-old, a small-batch rye made by Wild Turkey. Add Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac, a bit of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and some Bénédictine. Stir in a few drops each of Angostura and Peychaud's bitters.

I take a sip. "This must be what keeps customers coming back," I say.

"Not customers," Kenyon corrects me. "Guests."

Kenyon seems a little wound up now. I take another loving sip.

"A customer represents a cash transaction, where they pay for something you have," he says, surveying the semi-dark roomful of early evening revelers. "A guest is someone you welcome into your space. If we see them as a transaction, we lose that interaction. We're serving people--not drinks."

His business paradigm isn't so much new as mostly forgotten. But Kenyon's bar, housed in a refurbished 1906 pharmacy, deliberately evokes the bygone Prohibition era, when clandestine barkeeps were perhaps more appreciative of patrons willing to skirt the law. There's no sign out front, just a stenciled name on the front door. True to the speakeasy of old, a "bookstore clerk" slides a walled bookshelf aside for patrons to enter a dimly lit bar that seats about 65. Dark polished wood, crimson walls and low-watt lighting set off the 20-foot bar, where three bartenders keep up a feverish pace.

A tall drink: Sean Kenyon with co-founder Todd Colehour (center) and bartender Chad Michael George.
A tall drink: Sean Kenyon with co-founder Todd Colehour (center) and bartender Chad Michael George.
Photo (C) Julia Vandenoever

Opened in November 2011 in Denver's Lower Highlands neighborhood, Williams & Graham has been named one of the top cocktail lounges in the U.S. by Food & Wine and one of "The Best Bars in America" by Esquire. The website Nightclub & Bar named Kenyon its 2014 bartender of the year, and the bar was a finalist for a James Beard Award in the Outstanding Bar Program category. 

Kenyon shrugs it off. "We've received a lot of notice for what I do, which I consider everyday stuff," he says.

It's an attitude he came by organically. His maternal grandfather and father were

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